less_memory_4The legions of the Decent Left are on manoeuvres again. Armchair Generals Denis MacShane and Nick Cohen have both been criticising the Government for its lack of moral fibre foreign policy involvement. It’s pretty much Decent Left boilerplate bloviating, all assuming that what the world really needs is Britain throwing its weight around and the only people who can truly understand and advocate for this great cause are members of the Eustonite media-political complex.

What is interesting in these columns is the complete inability of both MacShane and Cohen to understand why a British government of any colour might be understandably reticent at telling the world ‘no, this is how you do foreign policy’. There’s a case sometimes for obfuscating about the effects of your previous advice, but this is simply ignoring it and pretending that the Blair years and their foreign policy never happened. (There’s no mention of ‘Iraq’ in either column, probably unsurprisingly) If you’re purporting to give advice, it’s usually best to begin by addressing the world you’re in, not the world you wish you were in. Foreign policy doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and Britain’s previous actions have an effect on its diplomatic strength.

But then, this complete ignorance of the past appears to have struck MacShane to such an effect he can’t remember important events in his own life and career, let alone military and diplomatic history. How else can you explain him writing the following with a (presumably) straight face?

Despite the UK’s excellent think-tanks on foreign policy from the venerable Chatham House to the newer European Council on Foreign Relations and Centre for European Reform fewer and fewer MPs of any party show an interest and very rarely attend foreign policy seminars and conferences.

Surely MacShane can recall very good reasons from his career why MPs might be somewhat reticent about going to foreign policy seminars and conferences? Yet again, that mistakes might have been made in the past are completely ignored, which leads to a bizarre vision of the present unhitched from any context or consequence.

So, the media offensive has been attempted, but by refusing to recognise the circumstances it’s taking place in, it’s not likely to have much chance of achieving its aims. Which, fittingly, is pretty much the same as the wars Cohen, MacShane et al advocated turned out too.

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A couple of snippets from the Sundays to help you understand how British politics works today:

First, the Telegraph is very eager to tell us that Liz Kendall has suddenly emerged as the favourite for a Labour leadership race that may or may not be taking place at some unspecified point in the future. How has she achieved this impressive, yet somewhat nebulous, feat? Some mass mobilisation of Labour members? A series of impressive performances in the House of Commons? Perhaps she’s set out some important new ideas for the future of the Labour Party? Maybe it’s through a long period of helping and campaigning other MPs?

No, it’s because ‘she gave an interview to House magazine saying that for the NHS “What matters is what works”’. Yes, reusing some old bit of Blairite managerialist pabulum – what matters is ‘what works’, ignoring that ‘what works’ is determined by whoever decides what ‘working’ means – is enough to catapult you into the lead. It’s definitely not that she’s stressed the importance of private healthcare in the NHS while her old boss works for Alliance Boots at the same time its chairman is attacking Ed Miliband. What would the Telegraph have to gain by promoting someone who’d push Labour back towards the managerialist centre?

Meanwhile, over at the Independent, John Rentoul’s remarkable career as a political commentator who doesn’t understand the concept of ideology continues apace. Today, he’s setting out just why the country needs a Labour government, but headed by David Cameron. It’s the sort of centrist managerialist fantasy one would expect from an arch-Blairite, yet again stressing that what is important in a politician isn’t believing in something but being possessed of some nebulous form of ‘competence’. Like ‘what works’, ‘competence’ is purely in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is normally a well-paid newspaper columnist or editor assessing who they’ve been told good things about.

(Incidentally, although I’ve said I don’t think a grand coalition is likely after the next election, the number of times I’ve seen people in the press suggesting it does make me wonder if the ground is being prepared for one, just in case it turns out to be necessary)

What both these articles represent, though, is the cosy consensuses that dominate British politics. Stick firmly within the lines of what’s acceptable within the elite consensus and you’ll be praised to the skies for your competence and put forward as possible leadership material. Question it, or stray outside the mainstream consensus for just a little bit and you’ll be a maverick on the fringes, and you definitely won’t get the media singing your praises. It’s a lot easier for everyone in the elite consensus if politics is just a matter of deciding between competing managerial visions without letting any of that horrible ideology getting there. It’s why the memory of Blairism lingers so much amongst the commentariat: things were easier then when all you had to worry about was ‘what works’ not what anyone might actually want.

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Today’s trivia question: which British politician said this

“Every major statesman needs the wilderness years. Nelson Mandela had them and I suppose that’s my lot, too, so I’m ruling nothing out at this stage.”

You can find the answer here or in the tags to this post.

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Let’s suppose for the purposes of this argument that either social media as we know it existed in the 1970s, or the events I’m about to describe happened now.

In 1978, Larry Flynt (the publisher of Hustler magazine, amongst other things) was shot by a racist who was offended by something that Flynt had published. To be specific, it was pornographic images of a black man and a white woman together, which the racist shooter was offended by and wanted to kill Flynt because of it.

Flynt’s pictures were legal and depicted two consenting adults. Given that they offended a racist to such an extent that he tried to kill Flynt for exercising his right of free speech, would you share the pictures on social media to show solidarity with him?

(For the avoidance of doubt: the murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were an outrage and no one anywhere should be killed, assaulted or threatened for using their right to free speech)

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David Cameron’s stomping around the North today, yet again trying to persuade people that having elected mayors is a good idea.

I’ve set out before why I don’t like the current system of mayors (and their related ‘democratic’ position, Police and Crime Commissioners). In short, by concentrating power in one person and then severely restricting the ability of others to have any checks on that power, they’re effectively anti-democratic. There are good arguments for separating executive and legislative power at all levels, but democracy is about more than just voting. Most of these proposals just seem to assume that having a named individual responsible for some area of government magically makes it more accountable, without paying any attention to how that accountability takes place. As we saw with the farce over Shaun Wright, Police and Crime Commissioners are so unaccountable in practice, there was no body with the power to remove him from office.

When David Cameron and others do their pitches for elected mayors – despite the public rejecting them twice as often as they accept them – there’s a simple way to test how much they actually believe the arguments about improved accountability and democracy. Simply ask him this – should the position of Prime Minister be directly elected?

Sure, the position covers a while country rather than just a local government unit, but the principle is the same. The PM has an important role to lead and represent the country, but the people have no direct say in who gets to fill that role, so is it truly accountable and democratic? If our cities and towns will flourish more because they can directly elect their leaders, who can say how much the country would flourish if its leader was directly elected?

I’m not convinced elected mayors are some magical panacea for the problems of local government, and I strongly doubt that directly electing the Prime Minister would solve even one-tenth of the problems that it would cause. However, those that advocate directly electing more and more posts in the name of more democracy and accountability are heading towards this, even if they won’t admit it.

As I said a few weeks ago, I think there is a strong argument for looking at how we can better separate Government and Parliament, especially the question of whether ministers need to hold a seat in Parliament to do their jobs. I don’t think a directly elected Prime Minister is the answer, but then I’m not the one arguing that electing a post suddenly makes everything better.

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The disciples of Tony Blair exist in a strange situation, uncommon to previous followers of former British Prime Ministers. Unlike his predecessors, Blair left office while he was still relatively young and has hovered around the edges of British politics, with his followers still clearly hoping for his glorious return. For all the fervent belief of the Thatcherites, they never seriously expected her to make a comeback, but Blair’s still younger than several 20th century Prime Ministers were when they began the job. One can envisage him and the remaining true Blairite believers awaiting that time when a nation turns its eyes back to him and begs him to return at our hour of need.

Part of this process is the occasional hagiography of the Blair era from political commentators you’d expect to know better. Andrew Rawnsley’s today’s example, yet somehow managing to omit the word ‘moral’ before ‘vacuum’ in a description of Blair’s legacy to British politics. However, it’s the usual contention that Blair had a unique ability to get people’s support that no one currently has, and was thus solely responsible for Labour’s post-97 successes.

846_bigThere’s a myth put about by the Blairites that without him, Labour would never have won the 1997 election. While he may have had some influence on the size of the majority they won, to claim Labour couldn’t have won without him is, to use the technical term, utter bollocks. Claims like this forget just how toxic the Tories had become before Blair became leader and the general sense of national mourning that followed the death of John Smith. The Private Eye cover here is just an example of that – a sense that the country had lost the inevitable next Prime Minister. The job of any Labour leader post-92 was to hold their nerve, avoid any big errors and walk into Downing Street at the end of the process. Those that claim Blair delivered this victory need to explain how any other potential Labour leader wouldn’t have managed it, rather than pointing to his good fortune at being in the right place at the right time to benefit from it.

In a historical context, his victories weren’t as impressive as the encomiums like to portray them as either. It’s always worth remembering that the largest number of votes received by a party in a UK general election was by John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 and that Blair’s landslides were symptoms of a flawed electoral system that couldn’t cope with multi-party politics rather than any ringing endorsement of him. (For example, Labour received fewer votes in 2001 than they did in 1992) His supposedly great triumphs were the result of Labour being able to take best advantage of having a plurality of an electorate whose old allegiances were breaking down, not the ringing endorsement of the masses some would have you believe.

At his peak, Blair and New Labour were more popular than any leaders and parties are now, but that’s not exactly a difficult achievement. The trend in British general elections since the 70s has been a slow decline in the vote going to the big two parties, masked by an electoral system that protects them. Tony Blair’s just another point of data on that long downhill trend, where Labour’s decline was hidden by the absolute collapse of the Conservatives. To act as those resurrecting him would bring those times back is to ignore longer-term trends in favour of some Great Man theory of history, ignoring the luck of good timing and claiming it was skill instead.

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This post from Alex Harrowell on the travails of UKIP candidate selection and this post on Conservative Home about the five different types of UKIPper (itself a variation on Alex’s ‘Three UKIPs’ idea) got me thinking before Christmas, and for once those thoughts remain coherent after it.

Whether you think there are three, five, seven or ninety-five of them, it’s clear that UKIP does now have a set of factions within it, even if none of them are formally organised. That’s not unusual for a party of its size and is perhaps inevitable for a party with rapid growth and an image that’s defined more by what it’s against than what it’s for. Being anti-EU or anti-immigration doesn’t come with a coherent set of other policy preferences and so people joining UKIP are quite likely to have other opinions that spread across the political spectrum.

This isn’t something that’s unique to UKIP, of course. Most growing and developing parties, especially those resting on issues outside of the normal left-right divide, have to go through a process of determining ‘but what are we for?’ at some point within their existence. One prominent example is the debate between the ‘Realo’ and ‘Fundi’ wings of the German Greens after their first electoral breakthroughs, which was mirrored in the debate over the Green 2000 proposals in the British Greens.

At some point, UKIP is going to have to go through their version of that fight. There’s signs that it might have kicked off in a small way already with the current fights going on in the party over candidate selection for the General Election, but the party has an advantage in that it has a leader who isn’t strongly tied to any faction. In terms of party organisation, Farage’s ability to say what his audience wants to hear and to not commit too strongly to any positive policy means that all the factions, however nascent they may be, think he’s one of them.

There’s an idea put forward in the academic literature on party leadership (see Stark or Quinn, for instance) that’s relevant here – the first thing a potential party leader must be able to do to win the leadership is to be able to unify the party. While others might seem more acceptable in policy terms or electability, the key to becoming a leader is to be able to appeal to (and lead) all the sections of the party, not one.

The big question for UKIP is what happens if and when Farage decides (again) that he doesn’t want to be leader any more? Two interesting factors come into play: first, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the party who can unify them in the way Farage does, and second, the way the party elects its leaders doesn’t do anything to encourage a unifier. Where most parties use some form of preference voting in their leadership elections (even the Tories have an exhaustive ballot of MPs) to ensure the winner has to be able to get majority support, UKIP’s leadership elections are first past the post, where the winner merely needs a plurality of support. What that means is that to become UKIP leader when there’s a vacancy, you don’t need to appeal to the majority of the party. Instead, you just need to get the support of the largest minority in the party and hope that the rest of the factions remain divided. In a party where no one’s quite sure of the relative sizes and strengths of the factions, what we could see is a very vicious battle for dominance.

It actually puts Farage into a strong position, as he can use the ‘apres moi, la deluge’ argument to see off any challenges and threats to his leadership, but if he chooses to go, we may well find that UKIP can keep entertaining us in new ways.

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